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Jason Reitman's sequel is almost too dependent on his father's 80s blockbuster... but when it works, it really works
GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Jason Reitman). 124 minutes. Opens Thursday (November 18) in theatres everywhere. Rating: NNN
I was 15 when Ivan Reitman’s original horror-comedy opened in theatres, and its shaggy-terror-dog story of academics blundering through a supernatural apocalypse in the middle of midtown Manhattan holds a special place in my heart. It’s a mess, a movie that doesn’t fully understand how to harness the combination of semi-improvised comedy, elaborate visual effects and convoluted mythology but hangs on for dear life and comes out the other side, covered in debris but somehow triumphant. Watching that movie in a packed theatre in the summer of 1984 was a revelation.
And as much as Sony might like to reposition the property for a new, younger audience, Reitman’s son Jason is almost entirely focused on giving the old-school fans a warm blanket of nostalgia, telling them they were right to keep loving the thing they loved as kids. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that worked on me, too: I felt a little crackle of glee when I heard a proton pack power up in Dolby Digital. Will today’s teenagers respond the same way? I have no idea. But it worked on me: Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a different kind of mess, and I liked it anyway.
Afterlife picks up in the present day, with single mom Callie (Carrie Coon) moving herself and her two kids – teenage Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and tween science prodigy Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) to her late father’s dirt farm in small-town Oklahoma – which is, somehow, a hotbed of paranormal activity. The ground shakes at the same time every day, even though there are no tectonic signifiers for earthquakes. There are weird contraptions in the field and strange puzzles in the floor. Phoebe keeps seeing flickering lights and hearing odd noises. They should probably call someone, huh.
The younger Reitman has spoken of the Ghostbusters movies as a family legacy, and “legacy” and “family” are the two biggest themes in this picture, which isn’t just faithful to the original movie but utterly dependent on it. That’s not always a good quality; Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan – director of Monster House and that remake of Poltergeist we’ve all agreed to forget about – are so determined to deliver what they think hardcore fans want that they miss out on multiple opportunities to give the film its own identity.
Afterlife’s second half restages the first film’s plot almost beat for beat, which feels less like homage and more like imitation; in a weird way, the desperate fealty of this direct sequel – and the way it fixates entirely on the one Ghostbusters movie everybody likes, totally ignoring the strange, eccentric swings of Ghostbusters II – makes an excellent case for the original direction of Paul Feig and Katie Dippold’s underrated 2016 stand-alone venture.
But when the movie lets itself try new things – a format-breaking Goonies riff with Wolfhard and some local teens exploring an old mine; the sweetly awkward chemistry Paul Rudd’s summer-school teacher develops with both Coon and Grace’s characters; the way the film’s final moment turns something that could have been ghoulish and exploitative into a genuinely moving bit of closure for both characters and audience – it kinda justifies the whole endeavour. (The post-credit scenes will chip away at this feeling, so maybe don’t feel obliged to stick around for them.)
There’s no question that this is a movie made by someone way too close to the material, but I wonder if that wasn’t the only way to pull off what the younger Reitman pulls off. Even when it gets clumsy – and maybe especially then – Afterlife’s heart is in the right place.